Are Military Chaplains Helpful or Harmful?

OutServe Magazine, a publication for LGBT service members, recently hosted a guest blog entitled “Chaplains: Force Multiplier or Force Distractor?

Vicki Hudson, a combat veteran and writer who is working on several military projects, opened up with an excerpt of one Code of Ethics for Chaplains that states “I will seek to provide pastoral care and ministry to persons of religious bodies other than my own within my area of responsibility with the same investment of myself as I give to members of my own religious body.”

This wording leaves large loopholes for chaplains to steamroll beliefs they disagree with. The intent is benign — that chaplains should serve everyone — but Hudson lays out her experience with chaplains in practice (emphasis hers):

I was told “Always have the unit and national colors behind your desk, and the bible on your desk”… prayer remained integral to every mission’s start and completion. Those that didn’t take part were often looked upon with disdain and distrust. The message was clear: Good Soldiers pray together. I didn’t necessarily agree with the dominant faith group, but I stood quietly and bowed my head just the same. It was required for survival and acceptance.

This report mirrors what many atheists in foxholes have experienced, something worth considering since Hudson is deeply religious. She continues to show some admirable dedication to ensuring no others would feel excluded by declaring that chaplains should focus on a Code of Ethics (quoted in the article) that states chaplains should “draw upon those beliefs, principles, and practice that we (chaplain and audience) have in common.” She declares a chaplain who would pray in a manner that excludes others is simply “failing the Chaplain mission.”

Hudson identifies that a “force multiplier chaplain” (her term) differs from a “force distracter chaplain” to the extent that a chaplain can accommodate diversity in the unit. I can agree with this sentiment, but that sentiment alone will not make the chaplaincy a force multiplier in the way Hudson wants. Chaplains must fundamentally re-evaluate their approach to diversity of belief.

  1. Chaplains must be trained to accommodate nontheistic beliefs and how to support nontheistic beliefs. Chaplains can never support a diverse military when they have no openness to or training about a significant nontheistic population.
  2. It is impossible to give a prayer at a mandatory event and accommodate everyone. One could also argue that the more a prayer accommodates a diverse population, the less it accommodates the chaplain giving the prayer. The logical extension is that mandatory prayer shouldn’t be.
  3. There needs to be a code of ethics for military chaplains. This code should reflect the commitment of the chaplaincy to serve diversity, and this is critical because service to diversity is what distinguishes the profession of the chaplaincy from a parish clergy person.

The attentive reader may ask, “But you said Hudson quoted a chaplain code of ethics.” She did, but that code of ethics is the Covenant and Code of Ethics for the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces. NCMAF is an organization of Christian chaplains that exerts strong influence over the military (even to the point of rewriting military regulations). However, NCMAF is not the Department of Defense and there is no explicit chaplaincy code of ethics for the U.S. military. Furthermore, the NCMAF Code is explicitly exclusive of nontheistic beliefs, requiring an affirmation that, “I will show personal love for God in my life and ministry.”

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and OutServe — the newly-merged organizations that work to protect the rights of LGBT military personnel — are doing wonderful work, and Vicki Hudson is an ally for reforming the chaplaincy. She has done them a favor in laying out these issues, but Hudson’s reforms still leave the chaplaincy a “force detracter” for everyone who doesn’t pray.

About Jason Torpy

Jason Torpy is a committed humanist and vegan. He graduated from West Point with a Bachelor of Science degree and from The Ohio State University with a Masters Degree in Business Administration. He served as a Captain with the 1st Armored Division in Iraq and now serves as President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), a nonprofit community for atheists and humanists in the military.
**Comments at The Human Animal do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers are any other organizations.**


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